Thursday, 26 September 2013

Time's Keeper

I used to live on the wrist of a jovial salesman; a man with the gift of the gab who liked his liquor and sweets. He charmed the birds out of the trees and navigated wild seas when he made sales trips to the Isle of Wright. He loved the sea and so was pleased to wear me on his wrist: an Omega Automatic Sea Master. During work or in church I was hidden under the cuff of a shirt or a suit jacket sleeve, but on other days I was in view on his wrist. We were constant companions: I kept steady time and he spent it. My hands kept the hours, minutes and seconds ticking so he could live and be, and oh what a life I was privileged to see!
I was a gift in '77, marking a new passage of time for my new owner; he was leaving his current home to live by the sea. His wife, ambivalent about the sea, was not best pleased; the sea air always affected her, but with a daughter married and a son in his 20s, the time was ripe to commence their middle life and move to a new Dutch barn-style house. Being a Sea Master, I was overjoyed to have been given to a hardy, seaworthy captain. When I was first strapped to his wrist I knew that here was a man not made for the land, but made for water: he was calm seas with a little choppiness under the surface. His emotions, which didn't often brim except to classic music, were like the tide: rough and smooth, and his wise words were brewed with humour. He was built like an immovable boulder with thick hair the colour of sea spray, which magnified his ruddy complexion. Altogether, he was a well-weathered sea-dog; a fair man who was liked by his contemporaries: his colleagues, business associates, and drinking buddies.
His wife was witty, vivacious, and the quintessential home-maker: she cooked, baked, sewed, and made countless cups of tea for unannounced friends and expected family. Together, they made the perfect host and hostess, despite the bickering that dominated their married life. She was like a rare, entertaining bird, who broke into song and dance at appropriate and inappropriate moments, and laughed and exclaimed at everything. It so happened she wore a gold bracelet watch who, despite the difference in our years – she was older than me – became my lady friend. Like her wearer, she appeared delicate, but had a surprising robustness. On rare occasions when we were both unclasped from our owner's wrists, we would be twinned together, our straps and clock faces laid down side by side, almost touching each other, but usually we had our own separate resting places. In sleep, we matched our ticks to our owners' breaths and called out to one another.
However, if too much time was spent at home I hankered for the sea, as did my master. His daily constitution was to promenade with his Labrador on the sand or shingle, even when there were gusty winds and thundering waves. There was nothing he enjoyed better than tasting salt or feeling wave-spit in the air, which in a short-sleeved cotton shirt he found invigorating. We were the same: him and I, but even a storm was no match for his jaunts to the Isle of Wight: the ferry bobbing across the sea and the Islanders hospitality. For a decade or more, it was part of his sales territory, a business necessity but also a pleasure, and when retirement came this feeling remained and so he still made trips from the mainland. Our wives understanding us allowed us to be free.
But good times do not last and along with our owners, we aged. I slowed down more often, as did the mechanics of my owner, until the day came to pass when we both stopped, and on this occasion we were not in tune with each other. Worn by him, I had a place, a function, but now I'm a corpse of time: a dead wrist watch.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Bull's Eye

The Red Bull blazed with fire as he tried to drive the sea-white unicorn towards the water, but she paid him little attention for Prince Lír had fallen. His twisted body lay motionless on the sand, the tide creeping in under a sky that was scarlet, and it was then that the unicorn screamed and charged into battle with her anger. King Haggard watching from the castle's highest tower shrank back as he knew the Red Bull was beaten. The Bull was hunted by the unicorn's horn, and as she had done, he retreated until he pawed the ground at the water's edge and refused to go no further. The Red Bull knew he was defeated, but wanted this final moment: you think I have lost, but I win, before he turned and walked slowly into the surf and began to swim. The waves crashed over him, quenching his fire and submerging his humped shoulders from view. Legend says he sank to the bottom of the ocean, but this is not true.
The unicorns were freed from the rolls of the sea, Prince Lír was resurrected from the dead, and no trace remained of King Haggard and his castle. The last unicorn, having tasted mortal life, took her leave and returned to her enchanted forest, and all this occurred because of the unicorn's courage and the Bull's obstinacy. As Schmendrick the Magician would say the Red Bull never fought, he always conquered; and although he had not captured the last unicorn, this loss had released him from King Haggard, and he would conquer the sea. His pride was wounded, but he was not hurt physically. The water washed over his great bulk, but did not draw him down; he swam against the tide until he passed out, and in this comatose state dreamt a beautiful mermaid with long golden hair and a shimmering blue-green tail rescued him. She guided him to another shore and watched over him while he was sleeping, sitting on a rock and combing her locks until her sweet song wakened him. All the Red Bull remembered was hearing a splash and a glimpse of a tail disappearing; he never knew how he touched the shore and assumed the tide had dragged him.
The shore he lay on was a line of white sand with scuttling crabs, buried shells and seaweed; just like home except the sun was high and the air was incredibly hot and humid. The Red Bull snorted as he clambered to his feet, his large body swaying as he thought he saw unicorns dancing in front of him. The affects of Haggard's bidding, after so many years, still held him, but if he shook his head the white horned mares vanished. He needed to find a lair, but from overhead there came a furious screeching and a bronze bird of prey suddenly fell like a star from the sky and plucked out his right eye. The harpy knew the Bull would not run from her strike and laughed with delight, her breath warm and stinking and, on wings turned red by the sun's rays, flew away. She had got what she came for: half the Bull's sight for letting a mortal possess him. The harpy had never succumbed to Mommy Fortuna, whereas the Bull had willingly let King Haggard's desires ensnare him. The harpy was as ruthless as the King: an eye for losing sight of your power.
The Red Bull with one remaining eye wandered aimlessly until a merchant with swarthy skin captured him and led him to his village, where his nose was pierced with a copper ring and he was made to wear a blindfold, and ordered to walk in circles to turn their waterwheel. As before, without his sight, he gave away his strength, but this time he stayed humble.
In a distant land a riddling butterfly told the Bull's peoples: “The Red Bull pushed and freed all the unicorns from the sea, then lost his eye to a harpy and became a one-eyed steer. On this shore, people trade in Bulls' eyes for peppermints.”

*Inspired from and based on The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Seagull City

There was once a metropolis nicknamed Seagull City. Busy and sprawling, its rich industrial history erased by an influx of gulls who had moved inland to scavenge opportunistically and outnumbered the people. 'A sea of nests' was how the local tourist guides conducting tours described it; a phrase which soon caught on and was displayed across chests, on canvas shopping bags, and leaflets. Tourism boomed, but with the city's new-found wealth came rivalry. Others cities complained their gull colonies had been lured to this Mecca with its poor disposal of half-eaten takeaway food, while many of Seagull City's own residents petitioned the council to control the gull population. Some local businesses, unwilling to change and unable to profit, ranted and raved 'these immigrants were losing them trade, harassing their customers, and thieving food'; others turned this mobbing behaviour into a tourist attraction where people paid to be dive-bombed.
Out of season however the mood between the council, the profiteers and the locals was unpalatable. Visitor-free, the seagulls were a daily nuisance to contend with, a flying pest; nobody gained from or wanted to be held responsible for their residency. The city's people were divided: those working in and benefiting from the tourist trade, and those vigorously opposed to the gull-human ratio: 4 gulls to every human. In the middle of these two factions were those who neither gained or lost; they had no allegiance to either gulls or people, as both had complex methods of communication and a highly developed social structure, and although they were few, it was this group that was the fence between the two. They were considered the real enemy for being too conciliatory: they were the ones that nodded or shook their heads in agreement with whatever was being said, left out their rubbish bags on non-collection days, or brazenly fed the gulls with saved morsels of meat as they traipsed the streets.
The council's pleas to dump waste responsibly fell on deaf ears. The city's people did not believe their filthy habits and extravagant attitudes could be that inviting. They shouldn't have to use their common sense, that's what they paid the council for: to sanitise where they lived and to get rid of unwanted predators. Prosper they would, but without the added expense of feeding these scavengers. The council tried enforcing 'No Dive Bombing Zones' and recruiting Seagull Fanciers, but seagulls, they quickly discovered, are not messengers. Their intelligence reserved for food as they hovered and squabbled over the city with harsh wailing, learnt to use stale crusts of bread to make their own meat sandwiches, and to play 'I spy with my little eye' with fast food containers. Their connection with the sea officially broken.
In this habitat, aptly named for them, they were thriving: building nests and laying speckled eggs which hatched a new urban generation. An army with webbed feet, they plodded through the city's streets with a slight side-to-side motion until they reached their regular stations: fish and chips, kebab, burger, and pizza joints. Some were traditional, some were adventurous, and some were plain garbage scoffers who loved to attack black bin bags. With fish stocks plummeting, they'd had to turn their back on the sea and rely more heavily on humans, but they hadn't expected this animosity. If humans failed to keep their centres free of waste, why shouldn't they create more seagull cities?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Penelope At Her Typerwriter

Click-clack, click-clack, ding! Click-clack, click-clack, ding! A muttered curse, a pause while white-out was applied and blown on, then the click-clacking resumed and carried through to the partner's rooms next door. Every day, without fail, Penelope obediently typed letters dictated by her father-in-law: replies to clients, and strongly worded inquiries to ministers and military personnel. Searching for his missing son, her husband, had hijacked his work and hers at his busy firm of solicitors. Missing in action, presumed dead or deserted was how his regiment conveyed it, but that was almost a year ago, and still they would not reveal whereabouts they might have 'lost' him. Penelope, used to these absences, waited patiently with a photo of him on her desk, and dedicated herself to her typewriter.
The typewriter was a present brought especially for her after her father-in-law had appointed her his personal secretary. An antique, it had quirks: the 'a' had to be pounded twice, 'h' lost it's tall head, and capital 'R' its pointed leg, plus replacing the ribbon was fiddly, but Penelope was comforted by the click-clacking sound and the ding! was very satisfactory. Her father-in-law's firm was progressive, but its office equipment old-fashioned, and Penelope found she preferred the productive noisiness to the unobtrusive hum and tap of computers. The tips of her fingers were sore and her wrists ached, but she was winning this war – she felt useful, but as she grew accustomed to this new forbearing attitude, her fingers craved more exercise. After office hours, she stayed behind to type, improving her speed and accuracy as day turned into night. These efforts soon led to short stories, then a début novel, and a hostile relationship with the cleaner who was forced to clean around her.
During business hours, Penelope doubled her workload as other partners and clients requested her typing services, and with this demand she glowed. Her steady click-clack, ding! was music to their ears and won her many admirers who courted her with scribbled manuscripts and begged her to type them. Penelope refused, telling each hopeful suitor she would choose when her own novel was completed, and so she continued to hold their advances off by crossing out words and crumpling up balls of paper. Every morning, the waste-paper baskets overflowed with her re-workings and a memo was pinned to the noticeboard to say she was not finished. Her objective, in fact, was never to accomplish it and for twelve months she deceived them.
During this time, her relationship with the cleaner had further deteriorated, as she blamed Penelope for the handwritten notes now regularly left about her lax standards: 'Why haven't the bins been emptied?' 'When did you last vacuum?.' 'My desk hasn't been dusted!' Twenty years without a single reprimand and Penelope had tarnished it, but she knew her secret. One evening she arrived before the office closed and stormed in to reveal it: flinging open a cupboard to expose deep shelves of manuscripts. “Completed!” The cleaner declared triumphantly. And there were many... All with the same beginning, but different middles and endings.
Penelope relented and asked her admirers to submit their scribbled drafts. The winner was a page-turner; a fictional narrative based on scraps of memories which seemed to her familiar, and was penned by 'No Name.' This anonymous author, invited to the office, was a man recovering from a head injury, whom Penelope instantly recognised as her husband and proved it to the authorities. Her returned husband in his diminished faculties shredded her admirers' laboured attempts to win her, but Penelope was contented: she had been rewarded for her faithfulness to her typewriter and to her husband's memory.

*Inspired by Penelope At Her Loom by Angelica Kauffman & Homer's Odyssey